Iowa and New Hampshire are done, and number three on the Democrat nominating calendar is the western state of Nevada. It votes in caucuses this Saturday (Sunday afternoon, Australian time).
Caucus states are inherently unpredictable because of the small numbers and idiosyncratic voting procedures. In Iowa that is mitigated somewhat by the enormous media attention (including polling) that it receives. Nevada, by contrast, has had very few polls and not much attention until this week.
But there will be a televised debate tomorrow, featuring the remaining six serious candidates in the field: the top five placegetters from New Hampshire – Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden – plus Mike Bloomberg, who is not on the ballot until Super Tuesday (3 March) but has been making up a lot of ground in the polls.
If you believe the betting market, the contest for the nomination is now largely a two-horse race between Sanders and Bloomberg, trading at about 11-8 and 7-3 respectively. Biden leads the rest at about 12-1.
National polling is rather more equivocal. Sanders is holding onto a clear lead, having broken into the high 20s. Biden has fallen precipitously, and is now somewhere in the mid-teens along with Bloomberg, followed fairly closely by Warren and Buttigieg. Klobuchar has improved on the back of her strong New Hampshire result, but is yet to make it out of single digits.
On one view, the Democratic Party is now in much the same position that the Republican Party was in four years ago. Sanders, like Donald Trump, is way out on one fringe of the party, disliked and distrusted by its establishment. And his opponents have majority support between them; if the vote for moderate candidates could be somehow consolidated, it would beat Sanders comfortably.
But Trump, as we know, managed to take the nomination anyway. And in the general election he proved to be not as disastrous for the Republican brand as most people had expected. Partisanship was too strong, and Republican voters stayed loyal despite their unorthodox candidate.
Will Sanders take the same path? Trump had two advantages that he lacks. Firstly, many Republican primaries later in the season were winner-take-all, so he could win big delegate leads with only plurality support; Democrat contests, on the other hand, are all (at least roughly) proportional.
Second, Trump was lucky in that his main rival turned out to be Ted Cruz, who was almost as extreme and as much disliked by the party hierarchy as he was. Many moderate voters were obviously unwilling to exert themselves to make Cruz the nominee instead of Trump.
Nonetheless, even without those advantages Sanders has a clear path to the nomination. The reality is that many, perhaps most, Democrat voters are not strongly driven by ideology. They’re simply looking for a strong candidate to take on Trump; once their first choice is eliminated, there’s no assurance that their second choice will be a near ideological substitute.
That’s especially the case if the alternative to Sanders looks to be not a single contrasting candidate, but the uncertainty of a convention where no-one has a majority. Nate Silver sums up the position well:
But the bottom line is this: Even if Sanders is far from the textbook nominee — and even if he’s likely to have some trouble winning new voters to his side — all of the other candidates have a lot of problems too. Sanders is in the strongest position for now, and he has a high floor of support that should win him delegates almost everywhere, while the rest of the field is a mess behind him.
There’s still time for that to change. (At this point I recall writing very similar things about Trump four years ago.) If a single anti-Sanders candidate quickly outdistances the rest of the field, they could still win a majority of delegates. And it’s quite possible, as Jon Chait suggested last week, that the Democrat establishment will turn out to have more sway in the party than did its Republican counterpart.
It doesn’t look likely, however, that Nevada will do very much to sort things out. Such recent polling as there has been pretty much mirrors the national figures, apart from the absence of Bloomberg and the presence instead of a lesser billionaire, Tom Steyer, who is polling at around 10% but failed to qualify for the debate.
Although Sanders won in New Hampshire, he underperformed relative to his prior polling. If that happens again, and particularly if the rest of the field consolidates a bit, it might dent his favorite status prior to the biggest contest so far, the South Carolina primary on 29 February.